Mister North was in London for the evening and it would have been sacrilegious to miss the opportunity to eat out together. We considered several cuisines before deciding on Portuguese. The South Lambeth Road is one of the borough’s best kept culinary secrets with its large selection of Portuguese cafes and bars, perfect for anything from a full meal to a custard tart and a coffee.
After some deliberation we decided to eat at Bar Estrela which is one of the largest and best known bars in this bit of Little Lisbon. We’ve both eaten there before and were keen to see if was as good as we remembered.
The bar was heaving when we arrived thanks to the fact FC Porto were playing Arsenal in the Champion’s League, but we were able to get a table in the ‘upstairs’ restaurant without too much trouble. The football was still playing in here, but at a perfectly pleasant volume that didn’t interfere with debating what to order on the menu!
The menu is extensive and offers a variety of main courses with side orders, sandwiches and tapas style dishes that will please everyone. We decided the best way to get maximum gluttony for our money was to stick to the tapas section and order a mixture of meat and fish dishes. Grilled sardines (sardinhas) are the quintessential Portuguese dish, so we simply couldn’t miss the chance to indulge in a taste of summer on a cold February night. We couldn’t say no to more oily fish in the shape of whitebait (petinga) and as seafood obsessives, octopus stew (polvo estufado) sounded just perfect.
The meat dishes were tricky to choose from as everything sounded appealing. We decided to be more adventurous here and try things we wouldn’t normally eat at home. First to tempt us was a dish of broad beans and pork (favas a portuguese). Neither of us were fond of broad beans as children thanks to the fact their skins can be tough and slightly bitter if the beans are past their prime. We figured the sweetness and richness of the pork would tempt our adult palates…
Next up was a dish of chicken gizzards (moelas de galinha), chosen since neither of us had ever eaten them before and it was an excuse to use this most ridiculous sounding word repeatedly. Our final choice was the most controversial…calves’ liver with onions (figado de cebolada). Bad childhood experiences with liver mean that Miss South became a vegetarian for 5 years to avoid it and despite having been a confirmed carnivore for the past decade has never managed to pluck up the courage to try it again. It seemed safe to have a go when there was so much other food that I wouldn’t go hungry if I still didn’t like it.
Mountains of food ordered, we relaxed with a couple of Super Bock and tucked in to the fresh crusty bread and homemade sardine pate that appeared on the table along with some olives. Luckily the food arrived before we could fill up too much on these delicious little nibbles. The octopus stew was first up and I was disappointed to see that it consisted of tender chunks of octopus nestled amongst a sea of stewed bell peppers. I love octopus, but the one thing in the world I just won’t eat are peppers. Seafood was off the menu for me tonight, but all the more for Mister North!
More plates of food appeared in quick succession and my momentary disappointment was quashed when I saw how delicious and plentiful it all looked. The broad beans were a revelation; sweet, juicy and rich with porky goodness in a sauce that cried out for more crusty bread so as not to miss even a drop. The whitebait were light, crisp and moreish. The sardines were perfectly cooked with just the right amount of char to the skin. The octopus stew seemed to go down a treat with Mister North who enthused about the generous tender chunks of cephalopod.
The gizzards were magnificient. Rich, tender morsels of intense chicken-ness in a unctuous gravy spiked with just a hint of heat from some chili. I could have eaten them straight out of the dish with a spoon and not shared a single one if allowed. If offal could be this good, I felt more positive about the liver. It arrived last and could barely find a space on the table, but we welcomed a plated filled with thin slices of seared liver interspersed with thick rashers of bacon and served with wedges of lemon on the side to cut through the clagginess that liver can have in the mouth that so frightens me.
I took a portion of the liver and bacon together and took the plunge, only to discover that I have been missing a serious trick by never having had the two together before. You all probably know how spectacular the soft yielding liver and the firm salty bacon are when combined in the mouth, but I was astounded. I have always thought people served bacon with liver to hide the taste and texture, it never occurred to my biased mind that they actually compliment each other. I have rarely enjoyed learning something new so much!
We managed to do serious justice to each of the dishes with only one lone sardine left at the end. The liver went in a trice, the gizzards were so moreish I would have ordered another portion to take home if I could and the broad bean dish was completely scraped clean. Even the the excitement at FC Porto winning their game had failed to distract us from the food. Service had been prompt, unobstrusive and there was no difficulty getting the bill. Seven dishes (including some patatas bravas) and two beers each came to just over £40 in total, making Bar Estrela excellent value for money. I would definitely recommend it to anyone, even if it means taking a trip to SW8 specially. It’s well worth it for good food and the feel of summer, especially on a freezing February evening!